Christian McBride Pursues Numerous Paths, from Big Band to Avant-Garde

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Christian McBride performs with his band New Jawn at the Chicago Jazz Festival on Aug. 31.

(Photo: ©Paul Natkin/Photo Reserve, Inc.)

I heard Chick Corea say something which I thought was lovely, something to the effect of—and I’m paraphrasing—“It’s hard for me to dislike an artist because someone who’s creating something that they want to create, there’s some sort of brotherhood just in the act of creating music, whether I like it or not.”

In July, you were in Europe with the Christian McBride Situation, which features keyboardist Patrice Rushen, who’s been having a welcome resurgence lately. How was that?

I deeply respect musicians who are the full circle, people who are good readers, good writers, good arrangers, good orchestrators, good improvisers, people who do their best to learn what every style needs to make that work, as opposed to the sort of genius concept of, “I play what I play. Nobody knows what it really is, but I’m going to Bogart it into everything I do.”

There’s really no need to consciously try to be different. You already are different. I think being different is just accepting who you are and being comfortable with that. That’s what makes you different. Patrice is one of those musicians. It’s a joy to work with her. Most people aren’t aware of the depth of her musicianship, they just know [her 1982 pop hit] “Forget Me Nots.” So, when they see her playing these sort of Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock lines and shapes, people are like, “What? I didn’t know she could do that!” And I’m thinking, “After all this time, you still don’t know that?” Patrice is a monster.

A lot of folks might also be surprised to hear you’ve been playing in a free-improvising trio with performance artist Laurie Anderson. How did that project start?

Our mutual friend, the actress Gina Gershon, said, “You know, Laurie Anderson wants to come see you.” And I said, “Laurie Anderson? You mean ‘O Superman’ Laurie Anderson? Really? She wants to see me?”

Laurie’s a tough customer. I don’t know if she’s going to dig the trio, but you just have to meet her. So, Gina brought Laurie to see me at the [Village] Vanguard with my trio. When the set was over, she came backstage and said, “Man, we gotta work together.” I was thrilled. I mean, Laurie Anderson, she’s been such an icon. She does so many different things—spoken-word, dance, visual art; so, we started doing these gigs. We played at Town Hall in 2017 along with the cellist Rubin Kodheli. It’s all improvised. We played Newport last year and we’ve got two concerts coming up in January at SFJAZZ and Disney Hall, in L.A. What a gas, man, to work with Laurie Anderson.

People might even be more surprised to learn that you’ve been working with the avant-garde alto saxophonist and composer John Zorn.

John was pretty shocked that not only was I fan of his but that I wanted to work with him. But he’s one of my favorite guys in the whole world, man. I met him when I was invited to do a panel at the Vision Festival, and that turned into being invited to come and actually play with the late Roy Campbell, Henry Grimes and John. And that has now turned into a number of different projects.

When we played the Vanguard, a trio gig with Milford Graves, I remember we were backstage in the kitchen and Milford Graves said, “Christian, do you know how many phone calls I got over the last two weeks of people saying, You’re playing with who? Zorn and who?” And Milford said, “Why is that so surprising? First of all, what do you think is going to happen?”

I said, “Yeah, exactly. People think that you and Zorn are going to be playing free and I’m going to be playing 12-bar blues?” It’s like, what are people thinking? It was great to see just how many people were curious about that trio. The Vanguard was packed. People were up the stairs, they had to leave the door open, people were peeking over heads. I hope we do that again. That was pretty trippy.

During the past few years, there has been a dramatic increase in socially conscious jazz projects. You’ve got one coming with your big band. What’s been your experience of this dynamic?

I think when Obama was elected, a lot of us kind of thought, “Hey, we’re there.” We stopped thinking we needed to fix things. But things always need to be fixed. It’s easy to say our current leadership is horrible, right? But when we approved of our leadership, there was still stuff in the underbelly that needed to be changed.

So, with this wave of socially conscious music that we’re seeing now, which is incredible, everybody’s antennae are up. The new recording you’re referring to is called The Movement, Revisited. It’s my big band, with a gospel choir from Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. They’re called Voices of the Flame. My main collaborator is the great Minneapolis vocalist J.D. Steele. His family, The Steeles, are quite revered in the gospel world. J.D. is the official choir/vocal director of the piece. Anytime we play it live, he’s the guy that coaches all the choirs.

So, it’s my big band, J.D. Steele, Voices of the Flame, [guest soloist] Alicia Olatuja, [poet] Sonia Sanchez, who does the voice of Rosa Parks, Vondie Curtis-Hall [the voice of Malcolm X], Dion Graham [the voice of Muhammad Ali] and Wendell Pierce [the voice of Martin Luther King Jr.].

What’s next, after Aspen?

Actually, before I leave here I’m going into the studio with Gregory Porter for Jazz Night in America. That should be a lot of fun. I love Gregory. He played football, you know, when he was in San Diego. In one of our first conversations, his brother asked me what position I played, and I said I played a lot of different positions, but usually I was a guy picked for tight end. So, Gregory says, “Oh, so you’d be one of those guys I used to tackle. Ha!” I said, “You could never catch me!” So, Gregory and his brother came at me: “Let’s tackle him now!” We had a great time. DB

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